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Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received failing grades from the Center for Public Integrity as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges. The Center found 35 examples of questionable gifts as well as caseloads that coincided with investments. Though a few did better than the others, no state was able to earn an A or a B mark.
Even with limited information available the three years of personal finance disclosures investigated created a varied list of questionable activity. This activity included judges that authored favorable opinions of companies they owned stock in along with other justices accepting lavish gifts from lawyers. Enforcement of disclosure rules was also found to be problematic with 12 states relying on justices to enforce the ethics rules of the courts on themselves.
The Gavel Grab staff is taking a break and will return Dec. 2. Happy holiday to our readers.
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- The Washington Post ran a piece yesterday on the Chamber of Commerce’s recent attention to state courts. Kate Comerford Todd, vice president of the Chamber’s litigation arm, the National Chamber Litigation Center discusses the benefits of state courts having larger implications. “Other parties in related cases watch what happened, and so do some courts.”
- Deaf advocates are creating courtroom guidelines after a judge in Maryland banned spectators from using ASL during trial proceedings. The Washington Post reports that the judge’s order was intended to prevent inadvertent or improper communication between spectators and witnesses on the stand.
- South Carolina’s Chief Justice, Jean Toal, has acknowledged the courts struggle with lagging decisions. A school funding lawsuit that has been pending for two decades, including five years at the state’s highest court, was noted was noted by The State. Lagging cases is expected to be a major issue in Toal’s re-election to her position.
A West Virginia Public Broadcasting report highlighted the findings of a recent poll sponsored by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, in which a full 87% of voters said campaign donations to judges influence court decisions. The same number expressed a belief that independent expenditures on TV ads and other election materials for or against a judge have the same effect. West Virginia has sought to curb this influence by instituting public financing for judicial elections. “The really good thing about public financing is it lets the judges spend time with voters instead of donors,” Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, told reporter Ashton Marra, “and it can reduce the fear of the public that justice might be for sale.”
The poll follows the release of The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12, in which Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center expose the massive influx of cash into judicial elections over the last two years. Former Indiana Chief Justice and Justice at Stake Board of Directors member Randall Shepard spoke on this issue at a conference highlighting the release of the report titled Nuvo reported.
Justice Shepard said, “Money finds whatever crevice it can, and flows into groups which are less transparent and less accountable.” He argued for limits on the role special interest groups play in judicial elections, but conceded that changing the process would be an uphill fight.
Former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Wallace Jefferson has been speaking out against the state’s partisan judicial elections. Texas has an article in the state constitution that calls for judicial elections, a measure that was originally intended to hold those on the bench accountable.
That same constitutional mention required judges to be affiliated with political parties in order to appear on the ballot. A piece that ran on inv.us quoted Jefferson discussing the flaws of partisan judicial races.
“It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system.”
Jefferson actively advocates for measures that help insulate judges from threats to fair and impartial courts. The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012 report, coauthored by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, highlights many of these these threats. Read more and request a copy at http://newpoliticsreport.org.
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- Mississippi’s drug court is facing serious financial troubles according to the Hattiesburg American. Mississippi is one six states the employs the use of drug courts as an alternative to prison. The program works on an incentive structure. Participants in the program volunteer their time and undergo treatment; if they do not stay clean then they run the risk of going to prison. The program needs approximately 4 million dollars to continue functioning.
- The Associated Press has reported that the Pennsylvania Bar Association has asked an appeals court candidate to remove a T.V. ad that the Association feels is misleading. Nominee Vic Stabile is running an ad that accuses rival candidate Jack McVay Jr. of nepotism. The ad also accuses McVay of breaking the oath he took when sworn into the bar association by this act of nepotism.
- The Sentinel reports that money in elections has infiltrated every level of elections in Pennsylvania, ranging from tax collector to the Supreme Court. The article highlighted multiple instance of money being used to influence the outcome of elections on all levels. Elections in Pennsylvania are becoming increasingly more politicized, and special interest group funding has become to common.
- Politics PA reported that this year for the second time in the last 200 years two justices may not be able to hold their seat in the upcoming retention election. Justices Castille and Baer are facing opposition from the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC. The PAC released a press release today urging Pennsylvanian voters to vote “No” to their retention. The PAC is angry over the courts controversial decision not to uphold voter ID laws.
- District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin has gotten herself in trouble with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is facing disciplinary action according to a Reuters article. The controversy surrounds the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program. Scheindlin has been accused of compromising the case in interviews with the media and encouraging the plaintiffs from the case to file a lawsuit and mark it as “related” so that she would preside over the case.
WTAQ has reported that the Wisconsin Senate committee has voted to change the way the State Supreme Court Chief Justice is elected. For the past 124 years the most senior justice has been chosen to serve as the chief justice. The Senate Judiciary panel voted 3-2 in favor of a constitutional amendment that they believe would make it easier for the philosophical majority of the court to be represented. The chief justice would be chosen every two years by his or her fellow justices.
The current make up of the court leans conservative. The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the issue in which the chief sponsor of the amendment denied any attempt at giving the conservative majority more influence, and that this amendment in no way is attempting to take away influence from the current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
The Wisconsin Assembly will vote on Thursday. If the amendment is to be successful it would have to pass the Assembly’s next session and then be subject to a statewide voter referendum.
The Coalition for Impartial Justice is hoping to raise the standard for electing judges in Minnesota. The Coalition is showing support for the proposed Impartial Justice Act, which needs to pass the Minnesota House and Senate before heading to voters and would require judges to be evaluated by merit, retention elections and public performance evaluations.
Northlands Newscenter reported on a discussion of the proposal last Thursday, led by Iron Range Representative and the Impartial Justice Act co-author, Carly Melin. The piece noted that organizers said the proposal will give voters the tools they need to elect qualified judges. Sarah Walker, the President of the Coalition for Impartial Justice spoke to the benefits of the proposal.
“The reality is, you go to the ballot box, you turn over the ballot and no one has any idea who they’re voting for and I think that’s wrong. Furthermore, 90% of judges run unopposed and while we have a quality judiciary, occasionally you need to get rid of one bad apple. The reality is, we have no way to do that when over 90% of judges run unopposed,”
It is believed that the ballot will include the proposal in 2014.
- The Associated Press has reported that the Judicial Nomination Commission in Wyoming has named the three finalists for an upcoming vacant seat on the Wyoming Supreme Court that became available after Justice Barton Voigt announced his retirement. The candidates are Patrick R. Day, Catherine M. Fox, and Robert W. Tiedeken. Gov. Mead has 30 days to select one of the three candidates.
- Almost a year after the general election, Eric Dirnbeck was finally sworn in as a judge for the state of Illinois’ Second Judicial Circuit, according to the Southern Illinoisan. The State Board of Elections certified the results after a controversial race that put Dirnbeck’s opponent, Kent Renshaw, only 42 votes behind.